The Shetland Oil Disaster: Spraying deadline looms for rescuers oil unit

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The Independent Online
THE EMERGENCY centre at the Shetland Islands' Sumburgh airport is the eyes of the environmental rescue operation, but a unit in London is its ears.

The emergency room in High Holborn is tiny and cramped. The eight-strong team, sitting or standing with telephones pinned to ears, looks to an ex- Royal Navy engineer for leadership.

Chris Harris, head of the Department of Transport's Marine Pollution Control Unit, peers over a desk strewn with maps, memos and paper logs of offers of equipment and expert help. 'Everyone under the sun has faxed in or phoned,' Mr Harris said.

Oil spilt into the sea soon emulsifies - mixing with the spume and tiny air bursts above the water surface to form an emulsion on which chemical dispersants have little effect.

It can take just 48 hours for this to take place. Mr Harris therefore has until about mid-morning today to complete the bulk of his spraying. He may have a short period of grace since the oil on the Braer is light, so is expected to take longer to emulsify.

By mid-afternoon yesterday the rescue team had placed two sets of booms across two harbour inlets on either side of the eastern outcrop on which Sumburgh airport sits. These should help to protect sensitive eider duck colonies.

The operation's six Dakota aircraft sprayed 20 tonnes of dispersant every hour - at a cost of some pounds 20,000. 'Action comes first,' Mr Harris said. 'Sorting out bills comes later.' He claims there is no ceiling on the amount he can spend on the clean-up.

'We've got until it emulsifies, after that there is no point carrying on.'

The operational team on Shetland is drawing up lists of the equipment it needs. The London team handles the logistics of obtaining it.

Between 10 and 12 trailer-loads of equipment has been transported by road to Aberdeen, and the plan was to ship this overnight to Lerwick on the Shetland Mainland using a ferry on loan from P & O.

But none of this can be used until the weather is calm. The equipment includes booms, skimmers (rotating blades that dip into the oil and scoop it away) and sorbants (pom-pom-like devices made of hundreds of strands that absorb the oil).

Mr Harris believes concerns within the salmon fishing industry over the effect of dispersants on their stock are 'misplaced'. He said that all the chemicals used were tested for any possible toxic effect on marine life and the environment.

'We are certain that the effect of the combination of oil and dispersant will not be more harmful than the oil by itself,' he said. The nearest fish farm is some 13 miles to the north of the wreck.

It is very early to predict the time it will take to complete the clean-up and Mr Harris expected it to last more than three weeks.

'The oil on the rocks is going to be scrubbed off by the wave action. Oil on the beaches is probably fairly easy to remove. The difficult areas are the tiny inlets and coves which we can only get to by sea - when it is calm.'

He believed that the oil would still be around months from now. 'It's going to be very hard to clear it all up. The three weeks figure is frankly just a guess.'